The Shape of Time (book cover) George Kubler (photo)

A Talk with George Kubler

Robert Horvitz

Published in Artforum magazine, October 1973, pages 32-34. © California Artforum, Inc. Reprinted in Studies in Ancient American and European Art: The Collected Essays of George Kubler, edited by Thomas F. Reese, Yale University Press, 1985.

H: Ten years ago a slender volume appeared with the striking title, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. It has become a classic of humanist thought. Its author, George Kubler, addresses himself with uncommon grace and lucidity to the problems of constructing accurate historical narratives out of the tangled and often incomplete residue of human culture. His search for a universal historical grammar, applicable to all societies and all ages, leads him to a boldly expansive definition of art which he states at the opening of the first chapter:

"Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful and poetic things of the world. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art. It then becomes an urgent requirement to devise better ways of considering everything man has made."

Although offered in response to historical and archeological needs, Kubler's definition, and its many implications, relate directly to our present circumstances. The repeated decay of theories of art into mutually antagonistic positive and negative extensions, into formal and anti-formal derivatives, has convincingly demonstrated the impossibility of defining art restrictively, except for very short intervals of time.

The following interview took place on June 29, 1973 in New Haven, Connecticut. Quotations from The Shape of Time, reprinted by permission of Yale University Press, are inserted within the text.

"Human sensibility is our only channel to the universe. If the capacity of that channel can be increased, knowledge of the universe will expand accordingly." (The Shape of Time, p. 66)

H: In The Shape of Time you note that intervals of 60 years often lapse between certain stages of history. You also note that an abrupt change in Western art and architecture occurred around 1910. As we are now some 60 years past "the modernist transformation," do you feel that we are entering some new interval in the evolution of art?

K: Well, I've always felt that that part of The Shape of Time was one of the weakest in the book. These efforts to establish monothetic regularities of happening were under the influence of "generation theory," which I still think has a lot in its favor and is a perfectly acceptable way of segmenting history. But this sort of dealing in intervals is more anthropological than I would now like to consider. So, if such a transformation is under way, it may be, but not because there is any regularity or necessity in the scanning of time. Now, I think it is happening: everything has come to be intelligible as esthetic experience. All experience is undergoing what one might call "esthetization."

H: I'm curious as to what might be causing this. It seems that the very opposite could have happened. The increased volume of replicas and standardized products could have led to an increasingly restrictive notion of art just as easily. But it hasn't.

K: No, it hasn't. If you are looking for a cause, it might be in the collapse of restrictions such as taste; the collapse of propriety; the collapse of property. All experience opens up with the collapse of these boundaries between good and bad taste, upper class and lower class, working class and artist class. Experience is opened up to esthetic sensibility by the collapse of a boundary, rather than by the creation of a new attitude.

"Men cannot fully sense any event until after it has happened, until it is history, until it is the dust and ash of that cosmic storm which we call the present, and which perpetually rages throughout creation" (p. 18)

H: This poses problems for historians and critics, doesn't it?

K: Oh, yes. Art historians have got to find ways of intersecting with other kinds of professional experience. For instance, the intersection of economic history with the history of art has been a very fertile one. And there are many other areas that can be opened up. But art historians are very reluctant to do so. That's one of the explicit aims I had in writing The Shape of Time, to enlarge the scope of what is embraced by the history of art very radically.

H: Can I ask what specifically motivated you?

K: Well, my interest in ancient America was the principal source. There were so many things that I thought belonged in art-historical considerations but were never considered by art historians. And then there is this European conception of the history of art that is so restrictive. In Europe the history of art will not consider objects of classical antiquity, nor will it consider objects outside of Europe. One doesn't talk about classical archeology. One doesn't talk about Islam. One doesn't talk about Africa. So that was one of my purposes in The Shape of Time, to enlarge the conception of the history of art. When I was a student, there was a great disinclination among art historians to consider objects of an "irreducible anonymity." If you couldn't reduce an anonymity to a name, there wasn't any point in studying it. I think that's changed a good deal now. The anonymous object has a perfectly decent passport, even without a name. This seems to have come about very abruptly in this century with the opening of the engineering world, through photography in particular. And through artists like Charles Sheeler, who saw the machine as an object of esthetic consequence. He painted very hard-edged reports of machinery, silos, ships, tanks, engineered forms. That's the sort of dropping of the screen that allowed the art historians to see.

"Now and in the past, most of the time the majority of people live by borrowed ideas and upon traditional accumulations, yet at every moment the fabric is being undone and a new one is woven to replace the old, while from time to time the whole pattern shakes and quivers, settling into new shapes and figures" (p. 18)

H: I think what first attracted me to McLuhan's approach was that he paid no attention to the source or the intentions behind an image. He put all things that can be perceived on a common footing.

K: Well, he was a literary critic, wasn't he, a lecturer on literature. I must confess I don't know enough about McLuhan to have a well-formed opinion, although I admire intensely what he's done in opening things into each other. I should have read him better. We seem to share an impulse to communicate by the aphorism, by the epigram. It's certainly true that people will more readily read something that is aphoristic than something that is a sustained philosophical exposition - which I am incapable of writing, at any rate.

H: What effects do you think increasing communication at the global level will have on culture?

K: What seems to be happening is that as communication extends, human stereotypes are more and more in evidence: Brezhnev, the eager salesman, Mao Tse-Tung, the queer neighbor, stereotypes of cultures. And, of course, as the modalities of culture are diminished, there will be fewer and fewer stereotypes. I'm very worried about the loss of diversity. We are getting an alarming homogenization. All the charm of distance and age are wiped out by communication. When you've seen a large number of television shorts of wild game in Central Africa then suddenly it's all very commonplace. Regional differences are being eradicated as well. Peasantry, for instance. This has been best documented in South America in Lima, Peru. There the agrarian emigration has been unregulated, allowed to take its own form. There is assistance now from the municipal government, but for a long time it was spontaneous and self-regulating. A certain amount of urban order gradually emerges in these barriadas thrown together at the edges of Lima. But in the process, the value systems that organized the lives of these people in their mountain valley or in their coastal habitats have disappeared. They have been replaced by urban values as a result of their adaptation to the metropolis. Cities of from five to ten millions or more, most of them housed in shanties, are absorbing the rural populations. So what comes next? The next stage is very unclear. When everything begins to homogenize there is the possibility of tremendous impoverishment.

"...the 'history of things' is intended to reunite ideas and objects under the rubric of visual forms: the term includes both artifacts and works of art, both replicas and unique examples, both tools and expressions - in short all materials worked by human hands under the guidance of connected ideas developed in temporal sequence" (p.9)

H: It sounds like we are leading up to something like "the end of history" that Hegel spoke of last century.

K: Yes, that has been suggested by several people recently, that the era of "post-history" has already begun. After history, what?

H: I find that very hard to accept. Maybe from some objective, external viewpoint we are already leading impoverished lives, but the participatory sensation is very different. I raise mice, and the mice are a very handy reference in this regard. They seem to have a certain level of excitation in their personalities that they project onto their environment. Even though they live in a completely peaceful, stable, prosperous environment, they still have a need for diversion which they satisfy by fighting and provoking one another. They manufacture social change even when it's not required of them. So I'm hopeful that our nervous systems have historical restlessness built in and that we will project it onto whatever environment we find ourselves in. And therefore history cannot end as long as there are new people being born.

K: Yes, it's the Orwellian myth, isn't it, that these writers on "post-history" are preoccupied with. It may be a projective myth.

H: On the other hand, increasing global communication would seem to enhance social mobility, allow people to match their talents and desires to a broader array of opportunities. Wouldn't that allow for greater personal self-definition?

K: What you are asking is a sociological or an economic question about the permeability of a society to immigrants coming to find their "entrances." As cultural and natural resources dwindle and populations increase, the impermeability of societies is going to increase as well. For example, we are permeable to Japan now, but Japan is not so permeable to us. As I say, the next stage is unclear. Increasing impermeability may be a defense against increasing homogenization. As increasing homogenization may be a defense against increasing uncertainty. The domain of esthetic experience closely parallels that, with its similar collapse of boundaries.

"Let us suppose a gradient between absolute utility and absolute art: the pure extremes are only in our imagination" (p. 14)

H: What do you think of television?

K: Television. Well, it's very much like the movies. The movie world continues on in television. But they are sociologically distinct: you go to a movie house but you have television where you live and with you all the time, available whenever there is a broadcast. But dimensionally they are very similar. Panofsky said long ago that the movies were space-charged time and time-charged space, and this is just as true of television. He was attempting to distinguish cinema from all other art forms by characterizing its space and time as being somewhat interchangeable and permeated with each other. The technology of placing an event in time and editing it are very similar. You don't have the vivid recollection I do of the newsreel. Many people went to the movies only for the newsreel, and there were theaters dedicated to them exclusively. On-the-spot television is the descendant of the newsreel. The newsreel is on-the-spot cinema. But my observation about the movies is useful only historically: the typological ancestor of television has to be the movies. The "magic window." I remember that when color television came in it was marvelous to have a set that couldn't be adjusted: glorious swirls and digressions from the picture.

H: We still have almost no abstract television after 25 years of saturation programming. I find that very depressing.

"Both in science and in art the inventive behavior rejected by the mass of people has become more and more the prerogative of a handful who live at the crumbling edge of convention" (p.68

K: No, I don't see that it is emancipated yet. So much of it is acting, actors, sets, the movies again. The extent to which television has emancipated its artistic technique from that of the movies is not very notable. I suspect that what is happening in the world of expression, artistic expression, is simply not very congenial to television. One thing I find most fascinating is the emergence of sculpture at the expense of painting. Sculpture together with theater. And they have certain traits in common favoring their relevance at present: physicality, materiality directly apprehended.

H: This would be in contrast to cinema and television.

K: Yes, and painting. The picture arts are recessive, really. Theater especially has it better than it has had for a long, long time. The renascence of theater is an extraordinary phenomenon. The experimental freedom of theater, the range of its subject matter, all that is an astonishing change from the limits of theater in the past. And similarly with sculpture. Though architecture is much worse off. Enormous amount of building going on, but the architects don't have much of it. Engineers and contractors have it all. The fear of the architects for a long time was that they would become the servants of the town planners. But actually they're becoming unemployed.

"The devices and artifices of planned illusion are the working gear of the artist who is engaged in substituting his own codes of time and space for our older and less interesting ones" (p. 47)

H: Have you made any notes towards a continuation of the ideas outlined in The Shape of Time?

K: Only in those things like the representation of historical time. Every now and then I try to develop one piece of what I said a little farther. Mainly I've done it in the direction of anthropology. That's been the main concern I've had, what I characterize as the humanization of anthropology. Anthropology tends so single-mindedly towards being a social science that it has become cut off from history. And if anthropology is to function descriptively at all it has to return to the uniqueness of historical events, to recover the sense of uncertainty that governs the humanities. Anthropology is drifting of its own volition more and more towards status as a pseudoscience. It is becoming "scientistic." It needs humanization. In The Shape of Time that was also one of the purposes I had in mind: to suggest ways in which anthropological archeology could be humanized.

H: That's a very interesting point about uncertainty. Of course the aim of science is usually to eliminate it, but in fact it may be essential content. I imagine the structuralist anthropologists are your main targets.

"Unless he is an annalist or a chronicler the historian communicates a pattern which was invisible to his subjects when they lived it, and unknown to his contemporaries before he detected it." (p. 13)

K: Oh, there are so many kinds of structuralists. There are the old structuralists, like Malinowski, who was antihistorical to the degree of rejecting all historical study of culture as worthless. He wanted to get at the functional interrelations of the parts of culture and so found it necessary to abrogate all historical consideration. That's the old functionist structuralism, which still subsists in the more recent structuralism of Levi-Strauss, for example. He is still methodically unhistorical - not antihistorical, unhistorical. Anthropology is still much in need of humanization. But as for the uncertainty, Niels Bohr's book On Complementarity had much the same intent, to reintroduce uncertainty into the efforts to describe the physical world. He intended to make public that what was to be described was so complex that it had to be described in reciprocally inconsistent ways. This idea of complementarity is very necessary and is laced all through human thought. You see, the idea of culture is not that objective. Culture has been reified a great deal, been turned into a "thing." But it isn't a thing.

H: Your subtitle for The Shape of Time was "Remarks on the History of Things," and in the course of the book, you break "things" down into three categories: solids, planes and envelopes. The envelope idea seems to be the most expansive one in that it includes architecture, and by extension the city and controlled environments in general. It seems at that point that if those are artifacts, then you are getting into quite abstract systems.

"When a specific temperament interlocks with a favorable position, the fortunate individual can extract from the situation a wealth of unimagined consequences. This achievement may be denied to other persons, as well as to the same person at a different time. Thus every birth can be imagined as set into play on two wheels of fortune, one governing the allotment of its temperament, and the other ruling its entrance into a sequence" (p.7)

K: Yes, but still they are tangible. They have material dimensionality. I feel that the substantiality of the artifact is traditionally essential to the use of the word. When you talk of systems then that is no longer material enough. It seems that the word requires some form of substantiality.

H: But then you have the problem of music, or the energy patterns on the television screen.

K: Well, they're not artifacts. I wouldn't say that a musical composition is an artifact excepting the paper it's on, its papery aspect. As writing it is an artifact. Whereas a musical system is not material. I feel that very strongly, that artifacts are material.

H: But what happens to the idea of a "history of things" when the physical continuum itself is subject to conscious manipulation? Say, for instance, a hundred years ago no critic or historian would have considered a tree planted in a park as an artifact. Today, because of urban and regional planning, one almost has to.

K: As a man-made decision, an intended form. In precisely that sense the universe is becoming more and more an artifact, a continuum of artifacts, really. The physical continuum now is an immense assemblage of artifacts, things that we have transplanted and artificialized. You know, it always used to be that artists were rather stupid. Particularly painters. This is no longer true. You have to be very much aware of everything that is going on, which is part of the extraordinary opening of the scope of art: art is everything. All reality is part of the mandate.

"The biological model was not the most appropriate one for a history of things. Perhaps a system of metaphors drawn from physical science would have clothed the situation of art more adequately than the prevailing biological metaphors: especially if we are dealing in art with the transmission of some kind of energy; with impulses, generating centers, and relay points; with increments and losses in transit; with resistances and transformers in the circuit. In short, the language of electrodynamics might have suited us better than the language of botany..." (p.9)

H: That would make your desire to see the history of art expanded, for historical purposes, applicable to our contemporary situation.

K: Yes, it must open up as widely as possible to see the esthetic possibilities of other domains, possibilities for speculation on works of art that had hitherto been invisible elsewhere.

"Today the artist is neither a rebel nor an entertainer. To be a rebel requires more effort away from his work than the artist wants to make. The entertainers have formed professional guilds in those many categories of public amusement from which the artist is now almost completely excluded. Only the playwright still functions both as an artist and as an entertainer. More lonely than ever, the artist today is like Daedalus, the strange artificer of wonderful and frightening surprises for his immediate circle" (p. 53)

H: Do you see this as posing any threat to the survival of the individual speculative artist as a socially viable role?

K: Well, no more than ever. People have always been reluctant to carry nonproductive mouths. That's the age-old problem. I suppose the artist only escapes it by becoming an artisan, producing objects that are highly desirable, and for which he must be subsidized if people really want them. So his task is always to find that relation to the public. If he contrives something or learns a craft that is in sufficient demand, then he is not really parasitical. Perhaps he is when he is producing something of which the social worth is questionable. We keep thinking that the old notion of the artist is no longer with us, but he keeps going on, doesn't he? There are still more Frank Lloyd Wrights around. And Picasso is dead, but there are many people as private and irreducible as Picasso around; and there will continue to be.